In one scene in Queen & Slim, a character refers to the two leads as ‘the black Bonnie and Clyde’ – and it’s true that the spirit of Arthur Penn’s notorious 1967 crime drama hangs inescapably over this production. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that, while Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were small time opportunist crooks whose legend outgrew them, Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) are just two young black people in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for that odd title, we don’t even learn the characters’ real names until the film’s conclusion. Quite how they earn their titular monikers is anybody’s guess, but I’ll go with it for simplicity’s sake.
When we first encounter Queen and Slim, they are in Cleveland, Ohio, and struggling through an awkward first date, arranged via Tinder. She is a lawyer, miserable after losing a court case, and seeking solace from human company. He is just a happy-go-lucky guy, hoping for a bit of love action and refusing to complain when the scrambled eggs he’s ordered are delivered fried. As a couple, they aren’t exactly hitting it off, so they get into Slim’s car and head for Queen’s apartment, where Slim is clearly still hoping that things might develop further.
But the situation goes catastrophically awry when they are pulled over for a minor traffic violation and a racist white cop pulls a gun on them. In the ensuing confusion, Queen is grazed by a bullet and, in self-defence, Slim shoots the officer dead.
Slim is all for calling the cops and facing the music, but Queen assures him that no black man can ever hope for a fair trial in such a situation. She ought to know; this is her area of expertise. She insists that they get in the car and drive South to New Orleans. They even discuss the possibility of crossing the water to Cuba.
And so a long Southbound odyssey begins. The couple encounter various characters along the way, and there’s a notable stopover with Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a gold-adorned pimp who owes Queen a major favour. Wherever they go, they realise that people are recognising them despite the fact that they have taken steps to radically change their appearances. It transpires that footage from the dead cop’s dashboard cam has somehow found its way onto social media and gone viral. Support for the fugitives begins to grow across America. Meanwhile, the police are attempting to track them down and have even offered a substantial reward for information leading to their arrest.
This is mostly an entertaining road trip with a powerful central message about inequality. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are engaging performers and, as the couple’s relationship begins to blossom, so we begin to learn a little more about them. Melina Matsoukis’s direction is pretty solid too, though – on what is her first feature film – she makes a few missteps, sometimes allowing the momentum to stall, occasionally trying little arty flourishes that don’t quite come off . Furthermore, the screenplay by Lena Waithe contains elements that don’t always entirely convince: occasionally there’s the feeling that certain details may have been lost in the edit. The film’s conclusion feels somehow horribly inevitable. Would it have been more empowering to buck the trend and offer something a tad more optimistic?
Still, for a debut feature, this is pretty impressive stuff and feels like another useful addition to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.